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Here’s 6 reasons why remote workers are valuable.

guy telecommuting
Remote work is great for remote workers because it’s always Casual Friday. ūüôā

I was re-reading an article I had posted on Facebook years ago, namely “More Companies Turning To Virtual Employees” found on the Huffington Post in early 2012, and saw that technical writers were among the top positions listed to be good remote positions and positions for independent contractors. Back then, I thought, “Great! Sign me up!”

Four years later upon re-reading this article, I was thinking, “Great! Sign me up!” However,¬†I’m wondering if things have changed since that article has posted. The reason I ask is that I’ve been looking for those remote positions, and I’ll be damned if I can find one, or find one easily.

Now, keep in mind, I’ve had the opportunity to be a remote worker, and I did it for about three¬†years. The small consulting gig I have after hours that’s an extension of that job is still done remotely. I know what it takes to be a successful remote worker.

So why is it so difficult to find these remote positions? When¬†Marissa Meyer of Yahoo took away telecommuting privileges in 2013 (a year after the Huffington Post article), did it scare everyone else to do the same? I protested that move then, and I protest it now. ¬†I’ve seen many positions listed that could be done remotely, or mostly remotely (like an occasional visit to the office would be okay), but everyone insists that workers need to be in the office. I’m all for teamwork, yet I’ve been on several teams remotely without any problem.

I have a feeling that there are several misconceptions about remote working on the part of employers. Perceptions I have heard include:

  1. Workers will get more done in the office workers who work remotely goof off and regard the time as their own.
  2. Working from the office costs will be less expensive.
  3. You can keep a closer eye on workers/micromanage when they are in the office.
  4. There’s nothing like the social aspects of being in the office as part of a team.
  5. Being in the office with your fellow co-workers will instill more teamwork, and more company loyalty, and more productivity. (This was an argument of Marissa Mayer.)

Rubbish, I tell you!

I have found from my own experience, and the experiences that others have told me, all these are not true. This is not to say there isn’t some truth to some of these preconceptions, but they are based on the worst in class workers instead of the best in class.

Here are the 6 reasons why employers should consider hiring more remote workers:

  1. Remote workers actually put in more hours than office workers.
    Since we don’t have to commute to the office, we often are starting work earlier and finishing work later. Good remote workers will usually have a home office so they can be removed from household distractions, and distractions are actually fewer than in an office setting. Even if we have to step away for a doctor’s appointment, pick up the kid from the bus stop, etc. we put in more quality time in those working hours. In most cases, we keep the same business hours, but are at our desk more than someone moving around the office.
  2. Remote workers take on a good chunk of the operating costs.
    Since we work from home most often, we pay for the space, electricity, heating/AC, and the internet connectivity. All the other potential costs, like a VOIP phone, network box or VPN, and a company computer would be the same as if you were at the office. In some cases, the remote worker uses a VPN connection, and it’s the cost of using their own computer or equipment being used. The employer doesn’t have to pay for the occupation of space at the office.
  3. Good remote workers don’t need to be micromanaged.
    Remote workers can keep themselves busy, and are more productive if they don’t have someone constantly looking over their shoulder. If details are important to an employer, remote workers have to deal with details to ensure that communications about projects are understood well¬†as a result of being¬†remote. They ask clarifying questions as needed. Just relax!
  4. Social time¬†isn’t going to get the work done.
    Being a remote worker can be lonely sometimes, and some of the social aspects of working in an office can be missed. But thanks to social media tools, web conferencing, and good old email, being remote isn’t anti-social. Work, after all, isn’t about hanging out with your friends. Work is about getting a job done, and if you become friendly with your teammates, that’s great. I’ve seen plenty of situations where workers at the office socialize more than they actually work. You don’t have that problem with a¬†remote worker.
  5. Remote workers work harder to be a valuable member of the team than those in the office.
    While there is some validity that face to face events help to foster teamwork, it’s not a must-have. Remote workers can feel out of the loop a little bit when there are small chats across cubicles that are missed out, but when phone meetings or web conferences are going on, remote workers will go out of their way to integrate and ensure that their contribution is at least on par with the office teammates and¬†that the other teammates know that you are pulling your weight–sometimes more. This is especially true of global or cross-country teams that all meet remotely whether they are at the office or not. By being allowed to work independently as a remote worker, and by being allowed to work in a way that best suits that worker, this situation allows for more worker satisfaction, which can lead to more loyalty to the company, and further productivity.
  6. Here’s a bonus for prospective employers–you don’t have to limit your search to a local commuting radius or pay for any relocation for the right remote¬†worker.
    The best person for the job might be 100, 1000, or more miles away, ready to adapt to time differences if needed, and ready to work!

Not everyone is cut out to do remote work. And yes, some jobs do require that you need to be in the office, or at least every now and then. ¬†But in this digital age when we can connect in so many ways, I don’t understand how this hasn’t taken off more. I have Skype, WebEx, AdobeConnect, and other web conferencing tools at my fingertips. I also have email, social media, and internet access. I have most of the standard tools such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Cloud on my laptop.¬†What’s stopping me from getting another remote position? ¬†Oh yeah…it’s that I can’t find where they are, and they aren’t many of them out there.

What do you think? Should remote working or telecommuting be happening more? It was predicted that more people would be telecommuting by now, but I haven’t seen it happen yet. What are your experiences? Include your comments below.

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Online Student Again, Part 8: Online Customer Acquisition – Accio Customers!

With a wave of his wand, Harry Potter cried, "Accio Customers!"
“Accio Customers!” — Harry Potter
(Supposedly, it’s not magic, though.)

As of the end of this module, my mini-MBA course is now three-quarters of the way done! I’m glad it’s getting towards the end since it’s been a while since I squeezed in a course into my busy schedule.

This week’s topic was about online customer acquisition. Staci Smollen Schwartz taught this section. She was formerly the VP of digital marketing at Virgin Mobile, and now is an independent consultant for the Interactive Advertising Bureau. I found that much of this module took¬†elements of all the prior sections so far, picking out elements that¬†were meant to¬†provide¬†the best customer experience¬†and provide what customers needed.

Ms. Smollen Schwartz began by talking about the offline versus the online experience– what entices customers to buy online versus offline? Some sites will direct you to brick-and-mortar, some will have you shop online retailer, and some will sell direct.

The foundation for how customers are driven towards products via websites has to do with the path towards awareness, to consideration, to conversion, followed up by engagement. Ms. Smollen Schwartz demonstrated this by presenting many different kinds of ads and having the class try to determine what part of the path were the ads and banner ads as calls to action.

She discussed various tactics to bring about the conversion. Offline tactics are meant to drive you towards digital, and can include QR codes, vanity URLs, using the Shazam app to listen to commercials that will drive you to a website, and hashtags.¬†Product placement within website can occur too, just like on TV or radio. There are also brand experience apps to consider, such as an app doesn’t sell the product but the experience. The example used was the Weber Grills app, which provided recipes and grilling techniques instead of shopping for a Weber Grill. Another examples were¬†branded microsites like Sherwin-Williams Chip-It browser plug-in or app, and YouTube videos and channels that talks about the experience rather than the product.

Naturally, you need to figure out how the measure the awareness through reach, engagement, favorability, and re-marketing capabilities. Search Engine Marketing is important, because while relevancy in organic search is big, you also need to know how buying keywords for paid search can make a difference provided that you can bid high enough on the rights to that keyword in the paid search. You can also use product listing ads, daily data feeds from retailers (images, SKUs, price), and CPC price   Рcan be made and used similarly to paid search, but with product specifics

Affiliate Marketing is another tactic. It’s similar to advertising, but instead of getting a slotted space, you get a percentage based on clicks¬†to¬†conversions. RetailMeNot is a good example of affiliate marketing with their coupon codes. Amazon actually has the longest running affiliate program–since 1996! (Where do I sign up?) This strategy is often used on smaller sites like blogs. ¬†Commission Junction and LinkShare are others that are affiliate marketing networks.¬†Re-marketing in online ads is¬†marketing to people who have already been exposed to your website or banner ad at least once. The premise is that¬†you look at an ad, and then next day, you see similar ads everywhere, like on Facebook, Yahoo, etc.

Behavioral targeting in online ads involves marketing to people who demonstrate an affinity to your brand or category, without necessarily every having been to your website or seen a prior ad. Third party data companies see cookies for certain things, and based on those purchases and views, they can figure out what likes might be. AdChoices is a common third-party company which is an initiative that tries to educate and be transparent in doing behavioral targeting while keeping government rules out, and provide an easy opt-out.

Enhanced targeting is often paired with custom creative, such as setting up a modular ad in which, based on the cookie data, can switch up info for the ad on the fly to customize and personalize it for the user.

Email marketing is a proven and efficient online acquisition tactic. Shoppers overwhelmingly report that promotional emails tend to be their preferred method of communication with a company, and often cited as second biggest influence on a website visit.

Social media marketing is something that¬†brands are still experimenting and seeing how this works because it’s still new. At least one-third of all shoppers say their purchases are influenced by social media, as “likes”¬†and “dislikes” are often posted about a retailer that can influence the brand.

It was at this point that Ms. Smollin Schwartz gave us some formulas on how e-commerce conversions happen.

1) Total site conversion rate (%) =# of orders / # of visits X 100

2) Upper conversion rate (%) (This would be the awareness, consideration, and conversion) = # of orders added to the online shopping cart/#visits X 100

3) Lower conversion rate (%) (engagement) = # of completed purchases/#orders added to cart X 100

Tactics for driving upper conversion include recommendations and personalization; A/B testing, multivariate testing (variations of the same thing in different configurations) created on the fly for best performance, site search,virtual sales agents (live chat), and social commerce (negative reviews are best, because you can decide if the worst thing about that product is something you can live with).

Tactics for driving lower funnel conversion include incentives, like free shipping or accelerated shipping if ordered by a certain time, pricing incentives, alleviations to security and privacy concerns, and accepting PayPal instead of credit cards.

Shopping cart abandonment is about 71%, and this is usually due to customer shipping concerns or the customer is not ready to purchase. Some will take advantage of that, and re-market the shopping cart information for abandoned items in carts and promote a discount in order to fulfill the purchase process.

Driving cross-channel conversion is another online tactic, in which companies provide store locators, in-store pickup options, or even cross-channel prompts (allows the customer to click to call to finish the sale).

Engagement after the sale is important, because customer acquisition doesn’t stop after the initial sale. ¬†The progression of customer engagement starts with inactive customers, then moves towards active customers, to participating customers, who eventually can become product evangelists who bring in more prospects. Building engagement and loyalty¬†is¬†confirmation marketing, which is done through¬†community building,¬†packaging and loyalty programs. Referral marketing is part of this engagement, in which¬†incentives are used such as one customer’s referral code is used by another customer, and the original customer gets an incentive to get a reward too. This works similarly to affiliate marketing.

Ms. Smollen Schwartz summarized the online customer acquisition process with her “Key Tactical Lessons throughout the Customer Journey”, which were:

  • It is helpful to think about tactics in terms of a consumer decision framework of awareness/consideration/conversion/engagement, integration of offline, online, mobile and social, and often circular pathways.
  • Tools, tactics, and metrics differ depending on a customer’s stage along the decision pathway, nature of your product and industry, and your budget allocation.
  • Look at the key drivers of e-commerce and digital-influences sales, including the success of traffic-driving tactics, upper and¬†lower conversion rates, ways of measuring cross-channel sales impact, engagement, and repurchase.

Before I took this module, I thought this might be an easier topic for me¬†to understand, but this was a harder section for me to get through. I think it’s because much of this was deeper marketing than I was experienced with, and it centered around consumer product examples. While I understood the consumer product examples, I had a hard time envisioning how I might convert this same information easily for a B2B service model. Everything given was very commercial product related. The information was very dry, so while it was evident that Ms. Smollin Schwartz knows her stuff, for me personally it was tougher to get through this information. I will say that a few examples she provided proved to be well-explained, so I could see that I had already participated in some¬†of these tactics at¬†some point, like affiliate marketing.¬†I could also relate to all the consumer examples she gave from my¬†consumer perspective. Envisioning how to parlay this information into a means of¬†promoting the potential new business I’m thinking of starting…well, that question wasn’t answered as clearly as it was on how to promote and sell a consumer product. ¬†Even getting through the quiz– it took me several tries before I got a good result. It gave me agita like the SEO information did again.

It looks like I will definitely have to attend the virtual office hour for this module, because I need to have a better grasp of how this information translates into acquiring customers for services that are not B2C (business to consumer), but B2B as well. For all I know, more subtle tactics are used.  So for now, a good part of this topic still eludes me.

The next module will be about web analytics and ROI (return on investment). I understand on a broad level what those are, and I’ve used some elementary analytics to help me understand how webpages perform on a website, but not much beyond that, so this will prove to be interesting.

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ENIGMA Decoders Have Nothing On We Tech Comm Writers

20140606-112615-41175191.jpg
An ENIGMA coding machine, found at the Computer History Museum (photo credit: TechCommGeekMom)

Technical communicators truly do have skills that most others don’t have, and it’s a simple set of skills. We take for granted that we can display writing and documentation clearly.

What brought this to my attention most recently–as if I didn’t know this fact already–was dealing with emails from work. I was trying to interpret emails from several educated, fairly influential people from the company, and I didn’t¬†have the faintest idea what they wanted because of unclear directions. Granted, it¬†didn’t help that¬†the email system that we are forced to use at the moment (Lotus Notes) is¬†not exactly user-friendly when it comes to formatting content within an email. Even when I could wade through the quagmire of formatting fogginess, what was being requested of me was not completely clear, and I had to send emails back clarifying the requests.

Although we are often required to work on reducing the number of words used to relay our messages and act as translators of content, it shouldn’t be at the cost of miscommunication. Sometimes having more is less, because more detailed directions can provide less back-and-forth of emails, thus more efficiency in getting the work or task done. From a customer perspective, having accurate documentation–even if it’s long–can reduce call centers help requests significantly.

A great example of making sure that content–whether it’s an email or any other documentation–is efficient is when I worked at the Princeton University Press. ¬†The CMS I had to use was an in-house Frankenstein monster of an application, but it worked for better or worse. There was no printed documentation, so when I first started working for the company, I took lots of detailed notes to make sure I understood how to do tasks on the system. I left the company after a few months, but left my notes for my successor. About two years later, my successor left, and my former manager asked me back to fill in temporarily, since she knew my contract had ended, and my ramp-up time wouldn’t be the same as if a new person was coming in during the¬†pinch of getting the¬†new fall catalog posted online. Sure enough, the two-year-old notes were still at the desk, and I could still follow them clearly. (This was when I knew that techcomm was truly my calling!) This reduced the number of times I had to ask my manager to refresh my memory on how to do certain tasks. As a result, the fall catalog information went up quickly, and everyone was happy. Mind you, the documentation I had was pages and pages long–all handwritten, no less, but it was accurate enough that I didn’t need much help in re-learning the system. My second successor was able to use these notes as well, since they were so accurate.

As I said, we take for granted that we have the ability to write cogently and clearly since we all do it on a regular basis. It’d be nice if more people can get the basics of this skill down so that we technical communicators can do our jobs more efficiently. The fact that we can decipher and clarify messages better than anyone should put us in the same ranks of ENIGMA coders, in my mind!

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Why Mobile, Gamification and Special Needs Are Made for Each Other

As the school year has started for some and will start during the following few weeks ahead, my thoughts start thinking about conventional learning and how educational technology has changed so rapidly, especially in the last few years.

Now, before I continue, I just want to preface this by saying that much of what I will be writing below isn’t based on any scientific study, but rather it’s based on my own experiences and knowledge.

I recently saw this article, and even retweeted it:

Autistic Student Feels Reinspired by Online Learning

I was so glad to see an article like this. We are constantly shown articles or videos about students who are much lower functioning than this kid, who are breaking through the communication wall through various apps on iPad. But I find that higher functioning autistic kids have a much harder time as the gap is much narrower, so it’s hard to define where the fine line between effective communication and ineffective communication is. ¬†As a result, these kids fall through the cracks of the system. Seeing that the young man in this article found a solution through online studies is fantastic, and I can relate to it a lot.

I am sure that I’ve mentioned many times before that my son is autistic, but much like the young man in this article, he is very high functioning autistic. My son is so high functioning that the actual autism diagnosis eluded us until he was 9 years old, and that was after already going through several other diagnoses and still feeling that something wasn’t quite fitting right. ¬†Through my son, while I have not gotten an official diagnosis, I’m pretty convinced that I am an Asperger’s Syndrome person myself; I have displayed so many of the same symptoms as my son, but I did not have the speech problems he had when he was younger (he’s fully language fluent now, due to early intervention and persistence). Even as a mother, I marvel at the various apps that are out there that could have helped my son when he was small, and I wish that we had access to it back when he was small.

My son is a smart boy. However, if something doesn’t interest him or doesn’t serve any meaningful purpose to him, then he’s unwilling to do the necessary schoolwork. As he’s gotten older, this has been problematic. He’s also a kid, and when it comes to mathematics, he doesn’t get the rote information down right away (like understanding his multiplication tables). But, show him how to do a mathematical function, and he can pick it up fairly quickly. He’s not always interested in reading, but he was reading when he was about 3, and when he reads something that interests him, he practically has the resource information memorized. He takes in videos like nobody’s business. Ask him anything about Super Sentai (the original Japanese Power Rangers), Kamen Rider, Power Rangers, Beyblades, Bakugan or Pokemon, and he can tell you everything about them. ¬†He also has a fascination with the sciences, especially physics, so when the Higgs Boson was recently proven, I asked him if he had heard about it, and he said, “Yeah, what about it?” and he explained what it was, and didn’t know that it had actually be proven. ¬†Keep in mind, the kid is only 11.

Yet, he struggles with school. It’s hard for him to focus, and sometimes he’s still processing things in his head when he’s paying attention in class. He can’t take notes to save his life, but he can learn from them. ¬†School is a difficult chore for him, and it takes some creativity to engage him to learn. He’s definitely capable of learning, but he can’t always learn by conventional means. He has a very difficult time with writing skills as well, which has been a struggle since he was small.

I can relate to my son on so many levels academically. I think this is why I end up being the one to do homework with him most of the time–I know how to “translate” things in a way that he can understand. I also had that same combination of hyper-focus on some topics, and total distraction on other topics, and had a hard time with school as well, even though I did well for the most part. If I had half the tools and support he has now when I was a kid, I would’ve been valedictorian of my class, I bet, but instead, I had to fight my way through much of school to get decent grades.

So, when I read the article above, I could relate to it so much because of my son, but also because of my own online experiences getting my Master’s degree from NJIT. My degree was 100% online, and despite what anyone would think, it was a very social event, yet I could pace myself the way I wanted (well, within reason–I still had deadlines for assignments and such). ¬†I want to say that the success in earning my degree and getting a straight “A” average was due to hard work and the quality of the program–which it was, but it was more. It was the delivery system. I’m very convinced that if I had done this coursework solely in a classroom environment, while I might have done well, I don’t think I would have done THIS well. ¬†Being able to set up my own schoolwork routine, read at my own pace, respond to forum threads and work on assignments at my own pace were a huge part of it. I’ve found for years that social media and just being connected to the Internet is not only addictive for me, but essential for me. It’s how I’m able to socialize more effectively and learn more effectively as well. ¬†For all those naysayers that say there’s no such thing as “learning styles,” I say, “Poppycock!” I am a living example of someone who needs to be taught more on a visual level than an audiological level; I have sensory issues but am simultaneously a sensory learner. ¬†My son is the same way.

So what does this have to do with mobile learning and gamification? EVERYTHING! There seem to be more and more studies that “typical” learners learn as much or more with mobile options and gamification methods. Imagine what it can do for special needs learning! My son is a big of a gamer, and I know at his age I love the earliest electronic and digital games myself. ¬†Even now, I’d much rather play an online game to learn than read my dry textbook. The trick for high-functioning special needs people like my son and I is that we–as I mentioned before–fall between the cracks; we don’t need things dumbed down for us, but we do need a different method to get the same information into our skulls, and everything is either over simplified and babyish (like some of the math games that he can play to get those multiplication facts into his head), or there isn’t something that is sophisticated enough that can achieve the same thing.

I envy my son, because e-learning is SO much more than it was when I was growing up. Heck, just having Internet access and email and social media is much more than what I had ¬†when I went to school. Getting my Master’s degree was the first time I could use such resources, and given the right tools as these digital ones, I could fly (metaphorically speaking). I want to see my son fly as well, as I know he’s capable of it. I try to find lots of physics game apps for him on my iPad, which he zooms through with ease. I need to find some age appropriate math apps, writing apps, and other apps that can help him learn without him realizing he’s learning, or at least make it more enjoyable. I want him to feel successful in whatever he ends up doing, and I want him to feel that learning is a lifelong endeavor, and that he is capable of finding the resources he needs to accomplish what he wants. We are still figuring this out, but like I said, the world is his oyster, and he needs to learn how to access it all, and I think he’s already on his way since he found the Super Sentai on his own (and yes, he watches these Japanese Power Rangers episodes on YouTube, in Japanese, sometimes subtitled, sometimes not, but he doesn’t care–he picks up what all of it’s about anyway).

Being that my son is a big gamer, he enjoys and adapts to games well. ¬†He was fortunate, this summer, that his summer school math teacher picked up on the idea of gamification, as every day my son and the other kids in his class would play a card/board game that would teach math skills. He enjoyed it very much, and there was a social skills aspect to it as well, which helped. Granted, it was not a video game or digital online game, but the principle is still the same–it was a game, and he was learning the skills he needed to learn. ¬†So many online games can teach without one realizing it, and making learning so much more accessible. ¬†Even the popular Angry Birds game–one of my son’s favorites–is actually a fantastic game that teaches physics and problem solving skills. I don’t say no to him playing Angry Birds on my iPad or iPhone. ¬†He’s learning, at least, and developing skills that may help in the future as some sort of engineer. ¬†Even as an adult, I can say that I would enjoy something more interactive online than something static or something that’s essentially a page-turner.

This is where mobile comes in. We all know the benefits of m-learning functionality, such as providing just essential information, having web capabilities to interact not only with others, but use tools like social media and researching on the web, and sharing resources is a big deal. Even the nature of m-learning is beneficial, because good m-learning design breaks things up in to small pieces than if it was done as a regular desktop course or classroom lesson. With m-learning, a child can record the class while attempting to take notes, and listen to it later while doing homework, rewinding parts of the lecture while rewriting or filling in missing information in notes.

I know for me, it was a big deal to be able to manipulate my studies to make them mobile. I would use the Microsoft OneNote app on my iPad to do initial drafts of homework assignments during my lunch hour, and then sync up my notes so that I could pull them onto my laptop later to clean them up more on my laptop at home. I could watch video or listen to a podcast on my iPad or iPhone, stop it and restart a section if I didn’t quite catch it–or even just stop so I could catch up writing notes first, then continue. You can’t do that so easily in a classroom. I could pace myself much better, and as a result, my retention was better because I could review details as needed.

This is really important for Aspies as they want to take in everything, and very often it hard to keep up because we are still deciphering and translating information given in our heads while the information keeps feeding. Sometimes our brains can’t process quite as quickly, so by the time we have a piece of information processed and we are ready for the next bit, instead of one new piece of information, then next five have happened. Keeping up and forcing oneself to keep up with the pace can be mentally grueling and exhausting. It’s not that we don’t have the mental capacity to understand the information, but rather that our internal processors are different. It’s like having last year’s processing chip in your computer instead of the latest and greatest. It’s not that the chip can’t handle it at all, but rather at a different pace. If you can gamify the information, then the information is learned on a subconscious level, and just like any video game, new skills are attained little by little as you proceed higher and higher in a game. It’s really THAT simple.

So, for you instructional designers, educational technologists and technical communicators that don’t think that gamification or m-learning makes that much of a difference–IT DOES.¬†Believe me!¬†Keep m-learning and gamification in mind. It not only lends itself well to typical learners, but can go miles farther for those with special needs.